Reflections on Hugh White’s ‘power shift’ – Five Years On.

Mish Khan

International relations | Australia

31 August 2015

Mish Khan recounts and analyses Hugh White and John Garnaut’s recent dialogue on the 5th anniversary of White’s influential article, Power Shift.

Hugh White certainly draws a crowd. Five years ago, Hugh White lobbed a grenade into the debate on how Australia places within the Sino-U.S. strategic sphere. With the release of his Quarterly Essay Power Shift and subsequent book The China Choice, White opened up an uncomfortable discussion, but one we needed to have: should Australia no longer rely on US primacy within the Asian region? White argued that with China’s rising influence, the power balance is shifting, and it is shifting now. A controversial and polarising piece, the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre openly admitted that Power Shift has been their most influential work to be released in a decade. On August 28th, the ANU College of Asia & The Pacific arranged a public lecture to review Power Shift in light of the past five years of strategic developments within the Asia Pacific region. A crowd ranging from academics and diplomats to enthusiastic students swarmed the auditorium to find out what we all wanted to hear: what did White get right, and perhaps more curiously, what did he get wrong?

In dialogue with John Garnaut, the charismatically eloquent Asia Pacific editor for Fairfax Media, an interesting conversation developed. White began by outlining the six key propositions made in his original paper. First, that China’s power was growing and that this constituted the biggest shift in wealth and power in the region since Australia was settled by Europeans. Second, that as China grew, its view on its role in the region would change and it would no longer accept U.S. primacy. Third, that the U.S., in continuing its hegemonic trend, would resist China’s attempts to change the regional order. Fourth, that a clash between China’s ambition to grow and the U.S.’s determination to maintain its position would lead to strategic rivalry between the two. Fifth, that this has dire repercussions for Australia as we balance between our reliance on China’s wealth and the U.S.’s security. If conflict emerges, such balancing becomes unviable and an ultimate strategic choice will have to be made. Sixth, that Australia now faces two key policy challenges which our governments have thus far failed to address: what can we do to revert this trajectory of escalating rivalry, and what can we do to prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario?

Following his summation, Garnaut commenced the night of scrutiny by asking White, “so what did you get wrong?”

“What did I get wrong? Not much.” This raises laughter from the audience, but beneath the humour, White is deadly serious. After the laughter dies down, White elaborates that there are three finer points he would revise. He underestimated how quickly China’s economy would grow, its growing maritime capability and how slowly it would take for the U.S. to recognise the China challenge. “So your biggest mistake was you didn’t go far enough?” jokes Garnaut. “Precisely” White replies.

“So let me play the devil’s advocate.” Garnaut offers his own criticisms of Power Shift which are based off his own wide expertise on China. He specifically targets White’s ‘Concert of Asia’ theory- that the best solution for balance of the region’s strategic power is for the U.S. to share power on equal basis in China as part of a ‘Concert of Asia,’ alongside middle powers India and Japan. Garnaut raises three points of discussion. White failed to account for the peculiarities of the CCP in making his analysis and failed to recognise how its operation as a Chinese entity influences foreign policy. He questions why China would be willing to enter a power sharing arrangement with the U.S. given there has never been any history of China entering a grand bargain. He also wants to know how White factors in the rest of Asia in this picture, given the strategic game widely seems to favour joining “America’s orbit” as opposed to bandwagon-ing with a menacing China.

White’s responses were simple and well delivered. He admits to having little knowledge on China internally- but he doesn’t believe his hypothesis must consider what it is to be Chinese. Rather, he goes by the assumption that to be Chinese is to be normal, and it is normal for states to yearn for power. Why? Who knows, but it is consistent across history. Nor is the future of the CCP central to the future of China in the strategic order. White agrees that China cannot be trusted to make a power sharing bargain- but his idea isn’t based on trust. Rather, you have to convince China that breaking the new arrangement means devastating sanctions. On the last point on how other countries in Asia view China’s power, White stated that it is much simpler than it seems. Every country, whilst afraid of living under China’s shadow, values its relationship with China. Similarly, every country wants the U.S. to stay in Asia to balance China, but don’t want to live under U.S. primacy- even though primacy is what the U.S. desires. This means an inherent disconnect between what America wants, and what everyone else desires. Yet no one, White argues, is willing to sign up to an anti-China coalition with the U.S., including Australia.

More on this: An academic talk with Professor Hugh White

Garnaut next asked whether China is indeed willing to go to war. Garnaut posited that despite great spending on shiny military hardware, no one in the Chinese military seriously believes that China will suffer an invasion. Is China really developing a military to project force externally against the U.S.? There is no trust in the Chinese military system- no commander would trust his chief of staff to coordinate military commands, new generals have imprisoned previous generals- to quote a Chinese phrase, it is a “you die, I live” situation. Garnaut concluded the military is hugely about convincing others you are capable- you don’t really mean it, but you hope they back down before firing a shot.

White agreed that China’s military capability is unknown. However, he argued it’s very common in the strategic world to not know your enemy’s military capability. Furthermore, the U.S. has no experience in such warfare either. It has been 70 years since a major maritime war and a whole new generation of military technology has emerged since. He agreeed that China doesn’t want to go to war, since it believes it can displace the U.S. without resorting to warfare. However, the problem is that the U.S. feels the same way towards China. Similar to July 1914, when everyone thought that everyone else would back down so that they wouldn’t have to, the risk, White says, is that either China or the U.S. is wrong about the other party stepping down. And that could lead to war. White said that it’s unwise to think that China can’t make 50% of their military might work. And just that 50% is enough.

Power Shift, and by extension Hugh White, is very much a hot potato in strategic studies at the moment. No International Relations, Asia Pacific or Security student at the ANU is a stranger to the popularity of our resident celebrity professor. But White is big because he brings fresh perspectives on a topic to which Australia says little. Arguably, the appeal of White’s Power Shift is that in an arena of gloomy predictions for Sino-U.S. relations that remained stonily silent on how Australia ought to navigate its future, he tried to offer solutions. That is unique. And that is why Hugh White draws a crowd.

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